WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden touted his economic accomplishments and scolded Republicans — previewing the case he'll make for re-election — in his State of the Union address on Tuesday.
Confronting a divided Congress for the first time since he took office, Biden talked back as Republicans heckled him from the floor of the House of Representatives, which they now control.
A series of tense exchanges during the traditionally decorous event highlighted the partisan rancor Biden will need to overcome to accomplish anything with the new Congress — including simply raising the debt ceiling to avoid a catastrophic default on U.S. debt.
He pointed to the economic progress made during his presidency and said he wouldn’t let Republicans “take the economy hostage” over the debt ceiling.
“Jobs are coming back, pride is coming back, because of the choices we made in the last two years," he said.
Still, Biden faced choruses of boos and scattered shouts of insults like "liar" over a variety of issues.
The outbursts appeared to come mainly from the handful of usual suspect Republicans, who are known for pulling stunts and provoking leaders of both parties.
But Biden, too, was unusually combative at times and especially folksy at others. (He said "folks" more than 20 times.)
In a particularly tense exchange, Biden accused Republicans of wanting to "sunset" Social Security and Medicare as part of negotiations over raising the debt ceiling.
GOP lawmakers appeared aghast at the accusation, expressing theatrical levels of shock and outrage, while others jeered and booed.
"Anybody who doubts it, contact my office. I'll give you a copy of the proposal," Biden said, clearly taken aback.
He regained control of the situation by saying, somewhat facetiously, that the outcry showed both parties want to keep the entitlement programs out of debt ceiling talks.
"As we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?" Biden said. "All right, we've got unanimity."
But some threshold had been crossed, and the taunts continued throughout Biden's speech when he addressed issues like immigration and the opioid crisis, with one Republican appearing to yell that it was Biden's fault.
It was a radically different tone from how Biden began his speech — by congratulating Republican Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California on his election with some friendly ribbing.
“Speaker, I don’t want to ruin your reputation, but I look forward to working with you,” Biden joked. “The people sent us a clear message. Fighting for the sake of fighting, power for the sake of power, conflict for the sake of conflict gets us nowhere."
The comity quickly crumbled as Biden waded deeper into his speech.
With his re-election campaign just over the horizon, the president called out Republicans, slammed “the big lie” that former President Donald Trump perpetuated about his failed 2020 presidential campaign and ad-libbed saucy comebacks.
“Now, some members here are threatening ... to repeal the Inflation Reduction Act. That’s OK. That’s fair,” Biden said before he strayed beyond his prepared remarks. “As my football coach used to say, lots of luck in your senior year!”
Facing widespread concerns about his age and health, Biden, 80, spoke energetically and at a rapid clip before he slowed down and adopted a more intimate tone.
He leaned into the microphone as he alternated between making eye contact with lawmakers in the room and speaking directly to the camera — and viewers at home — while occasionally making some of his now-familiar verbal flubs.
With Republicans now in control of the House, Biden said the two parties can still find places to work together to get things done.
That includes in areas like countering China — although many Republicans are unhappy with how he handled the Chinese spy balloon — promoting U.S. manufacturing and regulating powerful technology companies, he said.
"America used to make nearly 40% of the world’s chips. But in the last few decades, we lost our edge," Biden said of computer chips. "We came together to pass the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act. We’re making sure the supply chain for America begins in America."
Biden promoted federal money that Washington is pumping into congressional districts across the country to support new infrastructure projects.
"Amid the economic upheaval of the past four decades, too many people have been left behind or treated like they’re invisible. Maybe that’s you watching at home. You remember the jobs that went away," Biden said. "This is a blue-collar blueprint to rebuild America and make a real difference in your lives.”
The State of the Union is one of the highest-profile events of the year for any president, and it was a key opportunity for Biden to speak directly to American voters before he formally announces his campaign, which is expected this spring.
Drawing on themes that helped Biden win the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination and then the general election, the White House said America is emerging stronger than ever from the twin crises that marked his inauguration two years ago — the coronavirus pandemic and the Jan. 6 insurrection.
“We are the only country that has emerged from every crisis stronger than when we entered it. That is what we are doing again,” Biden said. “Two years ago, Covid had shut down our businesses, closed our schools and robbed us of so much. Today, Covid no longer controls our lives. And two years ago, our democracy faced its greatest threat since the Civil War. Today, though bruised, our democracy remains unbowed and unbroken.”
Americans ranked “dealing with the coronavirus” last out of more than 20 issues asked about in a recent Pew Research Center survey, which found that economic concerns were far more prevalent.
The speech is likely to have drawn smaller audiences than Biden’s earlier addresses to Congress or those of his predecessors, but he and his team have spent days preparing, including over the weekend at Camp David, the presidential retreat in Maryland.
Republicans were prepared, too, with Sarah Huckabee Sanders giving the GOP's official response from Little Rock, Arkansas, where Sanders, one of Trump’s White House press secretaries, recently won the governorship.
While Biden spent little time on so-called culture war issues, Sanders focused on them.
"While you reap the consequences of their failures, the Biden administration seems more interested in woke fantasies than the hard reality Americans face every day," she said. "Every day, we are told that we must partake in their rituals, salute their flags and worship their false idols … all while big government colludes with Big Tech to strip away the most American thing there is — your freedom of speech."